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Radio: Stress eating – how and why it happens

(April Ding/Daily Bruin)

By Shannon Roux

Nov. 22, 2016 3:46 p.m.

Did you find yourself reaching for Hot Cheetos or rocky road ice cream this midterm season? Take a quick study break to find out why. We talked to evolutionary biologist Jay Phelan and psychology graduate student Jenna Cummings to get the inside scoop on stress eating.

ROUX: It’s just about finals week, and everybody knows that once week nine rolls around, things start to drop off quickly.

Student 1: “I have a chem midterm next week and I’m eating ____”

Student 2: “I have two midterms on Tuesday, so I’m stocking up on____”

Student 3: “I’m eating_____ on my way to my ___ midterm.”

ROUX: First your laundry piles up … your sleep pattern’s way off … the gym? We have a gym? And of course your eating habits. All bets are off when it comes to snack time during midterm season.

Student 1: Cheetos, quesadillas …

Student 2: Brownies, Clif bars …

Student 3: Boba, Wheat Thins…

ROUX: Stress eating. We all do it at one time or another. But have you ever wondered why? What if I told you that instead of letting your stress eating control you, you could turn it into a helpful tool? That knowing where this behavior comes from could help you calm down and refocus all your hot Cheeto craving energy onto your 20-page paper. Let’s start by briefly talking about where our stress comes from. I talked to evolutionary biologist and superstar life sciences professor, Dr Jay Phelan, to tell us a little bit more:

PHELAN: The way we’re built is that, in certain situations, if we sense stress, we have these whole systems. Like the adrenal gland, it’ll start pumping out cortisol. And it diffuses from the gland, gets into the bloodstream and it has radical and dramatic effects.

Suspenseful music]

ROUX: So we evolved in the era of gathering berries and running away from lions, right? Our days pretty much consisted of looking for food and trying not to become food. And those were our main sources of stress. Our stress was moment to moment. We hear a rustle in the bushes …

[Bush rustling]

We think we see movement up ahead … our hearts are beating

[Heartbeat noise]

Our breathing is quick, our bodies start directing blood flow away from nonessential functions like digestion and toward our muscles, ready to run. … We hear a distinct snarl, a flash of fur and then

[Climactic music, lion snarling]

PHELAN: You were maybe gonna get killed [laughs].

ROUX: He’s not wrong. … This is our sympathetic nervous system. It helps us in times of panic, in fight or flight situations.

PHELAN: So get the blood away from digestion, stop investing in immune system, so you have all these things triggered by cortisol. Meant to be sudden intense change in physiology that causes you to do something. Fight better. And presumably the stress goes away and cortisol goes back down.

ROUX: But today our sympathetic nervous system is stimulated all the time. We never stop. We treat our MCAT results like they’re a lion. 20-page paper? Lion. That awkward party? Another lion. So what do we do about it? We eat.

Now wait a minute … l didn’t Dr. Phelan just say that when our sympathetic nervous system kicks in, we slow down digestion? It’s true! We do! But after prolonged periods of heightened anxiety, our body starts to worry that it’s going to run out of fuel. That the lion is finally going to pounce, and we won’t be prepared. Your body says:

PHELAN: Oh we are going to need fight or flight. So you see in animal models so you see that situations of stress cause a little bit of craving.

-Wrapper noise-

ROUX: So we grab a slice of pizza or a Milky Way, and we call it a study break.


ROUX: I sat down with a graduate student in the psych department, Jenna Cummings to talk about her research on stress eating. And the first thing she told me? “Not everyone stress eats.” That’s right. In fact survey data shows only about about 30 percent of people eat more when they are stressed. And about 30 percent of people eat less when they are stressed. However, there is research to suggest that this number is higher, closer to 50 percent, in millennials and even higher in women than in men. So let’s say you ARE one of the lucky buggers who’s got the stress eating gene. … Try to think about what you ate the last time you were stressed.

CUMMINGS: Lab studies show that if you bring people into the lab it’s a selective increase in high sugar and high-fat foods. Your very stereotypical comfort foods.

ROUX: We eat fats and sugars because they’re efficient and calorie dense. But there’s something else at work here. … Once we consume something fatty or sugary it goes to our stomach, which has been all but shut down from the constant state of panic we put ourselves in.

-Calm music-

Then the sympathetic loop starts to work backwards. It thinks: Wait a minute. I’m eating a high-energy food. High-energy foods take a lot of time and effort to find. There’s no way there’s imminent danger if i had time to hunt this energy rich food. So your heart rate slows. Your blood pressure drops, your breathing becomes regular. And you calm down! Viola!

You’ve tricked your body into thinking the danger is gone. The sympathetic gives way to the parasympathetic and you can resume your normal human functions like digestion and reproduction.

All right … that’s pretty cool. But what am i suggesting? Go nuts? Eat your heart out? Not exactly.

CUMMINGS: The few studies that have been conducted show eating when you are stressed provides temporary mood boost but only lasts about two minutes, so it would be just as good after two minutes than if you were not eating at all.

ROUX: Aaaaall right … so it looks like self-medicating through stress eating is not a viable long-term solution. Overeating, especially fatty foods, has some serious negative impacts on your health and may end up even decreasing your ability to handle stress, long term.

But knowing how this evolutionary glitch works can be a crucial key to developing some healthy snacking habits to help you calm down and focus. Jenna told me about a study which showed that eating a healthier snack like a granola bar can offer the same amount of temporary relief as a more traditional stress food like macaroni or Oreos.

CUMMINGS: The research is not conclusive yet, but while we’re waiting, why not try to find some healthy foods that are high in sugar and fats? In trying to eat healthy, I try to pick foods that mimic those things like avocados that kind of trick your body into eating healthier.

ROUX: You can trick your body into switching from sympathetic to parasympathetic mode, allowing you to take a deep breath and finally understand that physics problem you’re using this podcast to procrastinate on.

Understanding your behavior is the most important part. Stop feeling guilty about your snacking and take what you know about your evolution to use it it to your advantage! Grab a bag of cashews and go get those lions, Bruin bears!

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Shannon Roux
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